In the course of one year, French Polynesia will host as many tourists as Hawaii does in one weekend. It’s that remote and that much harder to get to — which also makes a visit all the more worthwhile.
It’s like nowhere else in the world. Paradise found. One of the last places on earth to be populated by humans, the Society Islands were also one of the final spots to be colonized by Europeans. Lost at sea, starving and thirsty, it’s no surprise that the French sailors who landed here would soon stake their claim in these warm, alluring isles, ripe with fruit and beautiful women. Even today, the French government continues to subsidize wine and bread in these Pacific islands, and with plentiful fish, bananas free for the picking, and easy-flowing local beer, it’s a true sailor’s paradise.
The history of the islands is as colorful as the bougainvillea that grows there. From Cook and Bougainville to Bligh and Moitessier, legendary seamen have been drawn to these shores. The origins of the first voyagers to arrive are still debated. But they literally left their mark, and you’ll soon stumble across their ancient marae, the coral tables where births, weddings and funerals were conducted.
Islands in the Sun
The Leeward group consists primarily of the high islands of Raiatea, Tahaa, Bora Bora and Huahine, as well as the outlying islands of Maupiti, Tupai and Maupihaa, the last two of which are true atolls. All these islands are within a day’s sail of one another. They have numerous places to stop for the day and safe places to anchor at night.
Raiatea is where you will most likely begin your charter. A small plane shuttles you from Papeete, Tahiti. Like all the islands you’ll visit, Raiatea is a jungle of lush vegetation, with morning mist rising out of the rainforest and stretching to the peaks of the jagged, eroded volcanic mountains.
Tahaa and Raiatea are surrounded by a common barrier reef. You can sail around the two islands without ever leaving its confines. The open bay of Apu offers spectacular vistas. Pick up a mooring, dress up in your finest pareo, make for the dock at Marina Iti, and enjoy a delightful French fusion meal with cats and dogs sleeping by your feet. The evening sunset in Baie Apu is more beautiful than any painting you will ever see.
Huahine is located 20 miles east of Raiatea. It is considered the least spoiled of the major Society Islands, and the passes are well marked, as are the reefs. Great surfing and spearfishing can be enjoyed on the reef just off the local bar.
Bora Bora, with its high, sculpted, twin-peaked central mountain, is surrounded by a deep lagoon inside a magnificent barrier reef on which ocean swells break into white spray. Anchoring requires great lengths of chain, but holding is good off the Bora Bora Yacht Club. It’s been said to be the most beautiful island in the Pacific, and with that comes more sophistication: elegant hotels, restaurants and shopping.
You can easily visit all these islands in a one-week charter, but given the commitment to air travel, it would be wise to spend at least two weeks in French Polynesia.
Annie Lannigan is the brokerage manager for Lyman-Morse Boatbuilding, working from the company’s Newport office.